The Federal disasters at Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff prompted many members of Congress to support creating some kind of committee to investigate what went wrong and to hold someone responsible. Almost as soon as Congress assembled, Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan proposed setting up a committee “with the power to send for persons and papers.”
Members of Congress had sent messages to both Secretary of War Simon Cameron and General-in-Chief George B. McClellan “to ascertain who is responsible for the disastrous movement of our troops at Ball’s Bluff.” Both men similarly responded that “an inquiry on the subject of the resolution would, at this time, be injurious to the public service.” Forming a committee could be more effective in getting answers.
The day after Senate approval, the House of Representatives unanimously approved what became known as the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Present War. This committee would “have power to send for persons and papers, and to sit during the recess of either house of Congress.” It consisted of three senators:
- Republican Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio
- Republican Zachariah Chandler of Michigan
- Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee
And four representatives:
- Republican George Julian of Indiana
- Republican Daniel Gooch of Massachusetts
- Republican John Covode of Pennsylvania
- Democrat Moses Odell of New York
Most Republicans on the committee identified themselves as Radicals, including committee chairman Wade. The Radicals distrusted McClellan, not only because he was a Democrat, but because he was not waging war against the Confederacy aggressively enough for them. A State Department employee wrote, “There is hope that the committee will quickly find out what a terrible mistake this McClellan is, and warn the nation of him.”
Many Democrats denounced the committee as a “Jacobin” body intending to discredit military commanders who did not share their political views. Others praised the committee as a necessary organ to investigate widespread allegations of military incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption. Committee members held secret hearings in the Capitol basement and divulged only selected portions of testimony to the press. Many witnesses were denied their basic constitutional rights, such as the right to legal counsel or to face accusers, and “evidence” was often based more on rumor than fact. The committee targeted several military commanders for removal more for their political beliefs than their performance in the field.
The committee summoned McClellan to testify on December 23 but was informed that both McClellan and his chief-of-staff (and father-in-law) Randolph Marcy had typhoid fever and were confined to bed. This was a missed opportunity for McClellan to defend his command decisions. His top subordinates were called forth instead, and they only made the congressmen more doubtful of the general-in-chief’s abilities.
Major General Samuel Heintzelman testified that McClellan sought no advice from his division commanders and paid no heed to several proposals Heintzelman had made for offensives. Of the Confederate army, he said, “I think their force is very much overestimated, very much indeed… Occasionally we get a man from their lines, but I have very little confidence in what they tell us.”
Major General Israel Richardson stated that McClellan had told him nothing about future plans or enemy numbers. He added that the volunteer cavalry was “worse than nothing at all.” Major General George A. McCall had not “counselled with the general-in-chief in regard to an expedition of any kind against the enemy.” He estimated Confederate strength to be 180,000, but acknowledged that this was based on what he had learned from McClellan.
Major General William Franklin, a close friend of McClellan’s, testified that the general-in-chief had sought his advice and shared his plans with him, but, “We are all sworn to secrecy.” Franklin stated that if he had to decide on strategy, he would move the army down to either the Rappahannock or the York rivers because the Confederates “would be bound to evacuate their position there and go down to Richmond… and fight us there just where we pleased.” Franklin agreed with McClellan’s estimate of enemy strength, and shared McClellan’s concern that attacking too soon “might turn out to be another Bull Run.”
Chairman Wade, a vocal McClellan opponent, bristled at Franklin’s testimony. He noted that the Federal government had already spent nearly $600 million on the war, with no results “commensurate with the exertions the nation has made.” It was one thing if McClellan were a Napoleon, Wade said, but “how can this nation abide the secret counsels that one man carries in his head, when we have no evidence that he is the wisest man in the world?”
Major General Fitz John Porter, another McClellan favorite, seemed annoyed with having to appear before the committee. His most frequent response to the members’ questions was “I decline to answer.” Wade commented that since McClellan seemed to confide in only Franklin and Porter, “It does seem to me that you military gentlemen would do well to compare opinions upon these matters.”
Major General Irvin McDowell, whom McClellan had leapfrogged as army commander after Bull Run, told the committee that McClellan had not shared his plans with him, but “I have had my own general views upon the subject, which I have expressed to him.” Committee members seemed enamored by his grasp of military strategy and history, and it was apparent that they would rely on McDowell more than any other general for a judgment on McClellan’s ability.
Nobody was beyond the committee’s reach, including President Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln had to testify in response to allegations that First Lady Mary Lincoln was “two thirds slavery and one third secesh” because she had several relatives in the Confederate army. Although Lincoln expressed relief that the members were “in a perfectly good mood,” Wade told him, “Mr. President, you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery.”
This marked just the beginning of the committee’s reign as top inquisitor of the Federal war effort.
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